Athens – birthplace of civilization, home to the Acropolis and Parthenon, and the birthplace of Zeus – is one place you’ll never forget. Upon visiting, you will experience ancient ruins and antiquities that will make memories for years to come. People come to visit Greece not only for its history, but also because it is a culinary standout. Greece is known for its wonderful produce, including luscious tomatoes, olives, olive oil, local fish, tangy, lemony Feta cheese, and ouzo, a licorice-flavored liquor similar to sambuca. There are a vast array of traditional foods unique to this region that will show up on the menus of local tavernas. Think dishes such as Spanikopita (spinach pie), Mousakka, grilled whole fish, and Greek salad.
Vegetables are a big part of the Greek Mediterranean diet and are consumed at every meal. Enjoy the wonderful preparation of vegetables in Athens as you experience the delicious cuisine. In addition to being an excellent source of potassium and Vitamins A and C, most vegetables are also rich in dietary fiber, which will not only help you stay regular (very important when you travel), but will help you stay trim as you’ll feel full sooner and stay satisfied longer.
The Mediterranean diet is also known for other health benefits, which include a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, and a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Greeks are known for their longetivity, especially on the island of Ikaria, where many inhabitants live well into their nineties and beyond.
Stroll through the vibrant area around Ermou Street in Athens and view the busy tables at the outside cafes where diners are enjoying dishes laden with vegetables. Make sure to visit the Psyrri area, which was a traditional neighborhood in Athens, that over the last couple years has become a happening spot for art galleries, tavernas, ouzerias, and music. Here you’ll find restaurants that have a more modern approach to Greek cuisine – definitely worth the cab or bus ride.
While you’re visiting Athens, it’s good to also be aware of the traditional dishes you may come across in the tavernas. The following list shows some of the “healthy” and “not-so healthy” menu items. Luckily, there are many healthy options served in Athens. If your plan is to stay trim as you travel, enjoy more of the dishes from the “healthy section.” Also share the dishes from the “not-so-healthy section, which are higher in calories and fat, but still delicious.
Most importantly, just enjoy the friendly people, the culture, the food, the breathtaking scenery and illustrious historical ruins. You will be amazed!
1. Healthy Menu Selections
Horiatiki Salata: Tomato, cucumbers, onions, Feta, olive oil, vinegar and olives. No lettuce.
Gigante beans (or Yigendes): If you are vegetarian or vegan, a dish of these tasty high-protein beans can be your main course; it is cooked in tomato sauce or olive oil and lemon
Spanikopita: Spinach pie
Grilled fish and shellfish
Skordalia: Potato and garlic dip
Sadziki: Yogurt, cucumber, garlic, and onion dip – great with Pita bread
Melitzanasalata: Eggplant salad
Taramasalata: Fish roe and yogurt spread
Fava beans: Dip or stew made from favas that can be eaten with a spoon or with bread
Patates to Fourno: Oven roasted potatoes
Briam: Roast vegetables; usually contains potatoes, onions, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. Similar to ratatouille, and great main course for vegetarians.
Dolmades: Grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions and sometimes ground beef (can be ordered without meat).
Moussaka: Baked dish similar to eggplant parmesan. Contains eggplant, potatoes, onions, ground beef, and a Bechamel topping.
Pastitsio: Think of it as a Greek Lasagna, but without cheese. Layered noodles, meat, tomato sauce, and a Bechamel topping similar to Moussaka.
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Stollman
2. Not-So Healthy Menu Selections
Fried calamari and other fried fish/shellfish
Saganaki: fried cheese; sometimes comes with tomato sauce.
Tiro Salata: Cheese salad
Casseri: Soft cheese like mozzarella
Keftedes: Deep-fried Meatballs
Tiropita: Cheese pie made with phyllo pastry
Patates Tiganites: Greek fried potatoes
Restaurant Terminology 101
“Horis” means “without.” If you want a menu item sans an ingredient, just tell the waiter: hoe- ris (without) and the name of the item.
Healthy Take-away Tips
1. If you are having meat, fish, shellfish, or chicken, order it grilled.
2. Make vegetables the focus of your meals. You will fill up faster.
3. Start the meal with a Greek salad or a Horiatiki salad.
4. If you have dessert, order one item and share it.
5. Stay active, and enjoy Athens by foot. Spend your days walking around this beautiful and culturally-rich city. It’s the best way to visit historical sites, burn calories, and truly enjoy this Mediterranean gem.